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China's car capital misses bicycle era

Even on subzero mornings, the World Bank’s senior transport specialist in China rides a bicycle to his office inside a landmark skyscraper in Beijing — capital of the world’s new biggest car market, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Jan 29, 2010 07:42 IST
Reshma Patil

Even on subzero mornings, the World Bank's senior transport specialist in China rides a bicycle to his office inside a landmark skyscraper in Beijing --- capital of the world's new biggest car market.

"I happily bicycle to work in Beijing, the world's most bicycle-friendly big city,'' Shomik Mehndiratta told the Hindustan Times. "I wouldn't have the guts to do that in Delhi yet.''

Beijing surprised the world this week with targets to encourage more Chinese people --- who bought over 13 million cars in 2009 --- to go back to commuting by the humble bicycle.

The Chinese capital, once nicknamed a Bicycle Kingdom where people of all strata cycled everywhere, is at a crossroad. In 1989, Beijing had over four million bicycles. Two decades later, there are four million vehicles --- over twice as many as in New Delhi --- which has the same population as Beijing's 17 million-plus people.

China's capitalist overdrive reached such a heyday in 2009 that luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz reported its best China year. Officials are now promising to restore the communist-era bicycle lanes swallowed by cars. Pollution-control has forced one-fifth of Beijing's cars off the roads on weekdays in a system based on license plates launched last April. But it's not enough even as Beijing builds the world's biggest subway network.

"I enjoy riding the bicycle, but it's getting more dangerous as younger drivers hit the streets,'' English student Han Zheng who commutes by bicycle for 90 minutes daily, told HT.

Beijing's continuous battle against smog and traffic holds lessons for every capital. Mehndiratta says India's national urban transport policy encourages bicycling but basic infrastructure for bicycles has 'really been neglected'.

Beijing officials plan to increase bicycle parking space near bus and subway stations and increase the number of city cyclists from 19.7 percent to 23 per cent by 2015 --- for a 'clearer sky and less traffic jams'. "The government will eliminate regulations that discourage bicycle use and install more restrictions against car drivers," civic official Liu Xiaoming was quoted saying in Xinhua. The Beijing News quoted unconfirmed plans to tax car owners for vehicle emissions based on mileage.

Beijing still has 10 million cyclists but falling car prices are shrinking their number. As collegian Han told HT: When I get a job this year, I will get my own car''.